LISBON – Elon Musk is “definitely” an ally of Ukraine, the country’s vice prime minister and Minister of Digital Transformation said.
Speaking to VICE World News at the Web Summit tech conference in Lisbon, Mykhailo Fedorov said he was “not concerned” about reports – denied by Musk – that the world’s richest man had been in direct contact with the Kremlin earlier this year.
“What matters is that there are around 20,000 Starlinks in Ukraine. And this is the most crucial thing,” Fedorov, speaking via an interpreter, said.
Two days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Fedorov sent a tweet asking Musk to provide Ukraine with Starlink stations and access to satellite-based internet. He says they have remained “regularly” in touch since.
Starlink has proved vital to Ukrainian forces for battlefield communication, as well as for fixing communication and energy infrastructure being taken out by Russia across Ukraine.
Soldiers have posted videos and pictures on social media thanking the Tesla founder throughout the war.
But last month Musk tweeted it was costing his company, SpaceX, which operates Starlink systems, $20 million a month to maintain the service to Ukraine in its defence against Russia, while CNN reported that SpaceX had asked the Pentagon for $400 million a year to maintain Starlink in Ukraine. It followed reports of Starlink outages as Ukrainian forces staged counter offensives to regain territory seized by Russia.
Fedorov said there were currently no issues with Starlink, however.
“Starlink is a critical structure for Ukraine,” he said. “From energy, communication, connections for citizens, for military personnel as well, everything depends on them.” He added: “We are looking at the actions, and the actions of Elon Musk spoke that he is a supporter of Ukraine, in the most critical times.”
Fedorov, 31, was appointed Ukraine’s Minister for Digital Transformation in 2019. Prior to the invasion the ministry launched an all-encompassing mobile app, Diia, that is constantly being updated – Fedorov says new features are added weekly – to reflect the reality of living during a conflict.
While Diia can be used to update passport details or for mortgage payments, it can also be used to pay money directly to refugees, report damage to property as a result of a Russian attack, and even send in photos of Russian drones and report their location, and buy war bonds supporting the Ukrainian military. Fedorov says 18.5 million Ukrainians now use the app. “We already have made a lot of revolutionary stuff that simply does not exist anywhere else in the world,” he continued, mentioning electronic passports. “We want to become an example for other governments how to do the digital transformation. Because the country has to act like a tech company.” Estonia has said it is looking to emulate some aspects of the Diia app.
There is a big Ukrainian presence at Web Summit in Portugal’s capital this year, including Ukraine’s first lady Olena Zelenska. Fedorov said he was here to meet “partners” such as Microsoft and Apple. On Thursday Microsoft president Brad Smith, sitting at a press conference alongside Fedorov, announced that the company was extending the technology aid it had provided to Ukraine since the invasion for the whole of 2023. Smith said this aid, which includes cloud services, would cost Microsoft around $100 million.
“All the world’s attention is on Ukraine, and Ukraine is now a great platform to test all the new digital products,” Fedorov told VICE World News in an interview.
As well as Starlink and Diia, Fedorov helped organise what is called the digital blockade of Russia, where tech and finance companies withdrew from following the invasion.
“It has been incredibly important because when such big companies as Visa, MasterCard, Apple, and Google left Russia, smaller companies followed their example. So now Russia has no or little access to technology,” he said. “This process actually puts Russia back many years.” He said that any company that broke the blockade and re-entered the Russian market would be “an outcast, and would not be approached by free and creative minds.”
“The future is for these companies whose values are freedom and who move around the world freely,” Fedorov continued. “And for now it is impossible to create and found these companies in Russia.”
There are other initiatives, many of which involve international partners: moving data centres to the cloud so they can’t be taken out if hit by a missile, launching a fundraising platform – United 24 – to help fundraise equipment that NATO uses, and working on new drone technologies including underwater drones.
Fedorov, who said he speaks to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy every day, said that because of the invasion, Ukraine was now “moving at such a fast pace that in 3 to 4 months, maybe half a year, we will be a completely new country.”
Asked to reflect on how he deals with the pressures of a job that has changed considerably since February, Fedorov is initially uncertain how to put it into words.
But after a pause, he said: “It seems sometimes that you’re in a computer game. There are missile strikes, and deaths, and we are launching projects to protect the citizens, and getting used to this pain.”
He added: “It’s kind of a feeling as if you have started a working day that never ends.”